Structural linguistics

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Structural linguistics is an approach to linguistics originating from the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and is part of the overall approach of structuralism. Structural linguistics involves collecting a corpus of utterances and then attempting to classify all of the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: the phonemes, morphemes, lexical categories, noun phrases, verb phrases, and sentence types.[1]

Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, published posthumously in 1916, stressed examining language as a static system of interconnected units. He is thus known as a father of modern linguistics for bringing about the shift from diachronic (historical) to synchronic (non-historical) analysis, as well as for introducing several basic dimensions of semiotic analysis that are still important today. Two of these are his key methods of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis (or 'associations' as Saussure was still calling them),[2] which define units syntactically and lexically, respectively, according to their contrast with the other units in the system.


Structural linguistics begins with the posthumous publication of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics in 1916, which was compiled from lectures by his students. The book proved to be highly influential, providing the foundation for both modern linguistics and semiotics. Structuralist linguistics is normally seen as giving rise to independent European and American traditions.

European structuralism[edit]

In Europe, Saussure influenced: (1) the Geneva School of Albert Sechehaye and Charles Bally, (2) the Prague School of Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy, whose work would prove hugely influential, particularly concerning phonology, (3) the Copenhagen School of Louis Hjelmslev, and (4) the Paris School of Algirdas Julien Greimas.[3] Structural linguistics also had an influence on other disciplines in Europe, including anthropology, psychoanalysis and Marxism, bringing about the movement known as structuralism.

American structuralism[edit]

First, in America, linguist Leonard Bloomfield's reading of Saussure's course proved influential, bringing about the Bloomfieldean phase in American linguistics that lasted from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Bloomfield "bracketed" all questions of semantics and meaning as largely unanswerable, and encouraged a mechanistic approach to linguistics. Those working in more or less the tradition of Bloomfield included Charles Hockett, Robert A. Hall, Jr., and Zellig Harris. Bloomfieldean linguistics in America was challenged by generative grammar, initially articulated in the publication of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures in 1957.

Basic theories and methods[edit]

The foundation of structural linguistics is a sign, which in turn has two components: a "signified" is an idea or concept, while the "signifier" is a means of expressing the signified. The "sign" is thus the combined association of signifier and signified. Signs can be defined only by being placed in contrast with other signs, which forms the basis of what later became the paradigmatic dimension of semiotic organization (i.e., collections of terms/entities that stand in opposition). This idea contrasted drastically with the idea that signs can be examined in isolation from a language and stressed Saussure's point that linguistics must treat language synchronically.

Paradigmatic relations hold among sets of units that (in the early Saussurian renditions) exist in the mind, such as the set distinguished phonologically by variation in their initial sound cat, bat, hat, mat, fat, or the morphologically distinguished set ran, run, running. The units of a set must have something in common with one another, but they must contrast too, otherwise they could not be distinguished from each other and would collapse into a single unit, which could not constitute a set on its own, since a set always consists of more than one unit. Syntagmatic relations, in contrast, are concerned with how units, once selected from their paradigmatic sets of oppositions, are 'chained' together into structural wholes.

One further common confusion here is that syntagmatic relations, assumed to occur in time, are anchored in speech and are considered either diachronic (confusing syntagmatic with historical) or are part of parole ("everyday speech": confusing syntagmatic with performance and behaviour and divorcing it from the linguistic system), or both. Paradigmatic and syntagmatic organizations both belong to the abstract system of language langue (French for "Language;" or an abstract, Platonic ideal). Different linguistic theories place different weight on the study of these dimensions: all structural and generative accounts, for example, pursue primarily characterisations of the syntagmatic dimension of the language system (syntax), while functional approaches, such as systemic linguistics, focus on the paradigmatic. Both dimensions need to be appropriately included, however.

Syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations provide the structural linguist with a tool for categorization for phonology, morphology and syntax. Take morphology, for example. The signs cat and cats are associated in the mind, producing an abstract paradigm of the word forms of cat. Comparing this with other paradigms of word forms, we can note that in the English language the plural often consists of little more than adding an S to the end of the word. Likewise, through paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis, we can discover the syntax of sentences. For instance, contrasting the syntagma je dois ("I should") and dois je? ("Should I?") allows us to realize that in French we only have to invert the units to turn a statement into a question. We thus take syntagmatic evidence (difference in structural configurations) as indicators of paradigmatic relations (e.g., in the present case: questions vs. assertions). The most detailed account of the relationship between a paradigmatic organisation of language as a motivator and classifier for syntagmatic configurations is that set out in the systemic-network organization of systemic functional grammar, where paradigmatic relations and syntagmatic configurations each have their own separate formalisation, related by realization constraints. Modern linguistic formalisms that work in terms of lattices of linguistic signs, such as head-driven phrase structure grammar, similarly begin to separate out an explicit level of paradigmatic organization.

Saussure developed structural linguistics, with its idealized vision of language, partly because he was aware that it was impossible in his time to fully understand how the human brain and mind created and related to language:

Saussure set out to model language in purely linguistic terms, free of psychology, sociology, or anthropology. That is, Saussure was trying precisely not to say what goes on in your or my mind when we understand a word or make up a sentence. ... Saussure was trying to de-psychologize linguistics.[4]

Recent perceptions of structuralism[edit]

Those working in the generativist tradition often regard Structuralist approaches as outdated and superseded. For example, Mitchell Marcus writes that structural linguistics was "fundamentally inadequate to process the full range of natural language".[5] Holland[4] writes that Chomsky had "decisively refuted Saussure". Similar views have been expressed by Jan Koster,[6] Mark Turner,[7] and others.[8][9]

Others however stress the continuing importance of Saussure's thought and Structuralist approaches. In 2012, Gilbert Lazard dismissed the Chomskyan approach as passé while applauding a return to Saussurrean structuralism as the only course by which linguistics can become more scientific.[10] Matthews (2001) notes the existence of many "linguists who are structuralists by many of the definitions that have been proposed, but who would themselves vigorously deny that they are anything of the kind", suggesting a persistence of the structuralist paradigm.[11]

Effect of structuralist linguistics upon other disciplines[edit]

In the 1950s Saussure's ideas were appropriated by several prominent figures in Continental philosophy, anthropology, and from there were borrowed in literary theory, where they are used to interpret novels and other texts. However, several critics have charged that Saussure's ideas have been misunderstood or deliberately distorted by continental philosophers and literary theorists and are certainly not directly applicable to the textual level, which Saussure himself would have firmly placed within parole and so not amenable to his theoretical constructs.[12][13]


  1. ^ John R. Searle, "Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics" Archived 2013-09-11 at the Wayback Machine, New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.
  2. ^ Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Open Court House.
  3. ^ Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge (eds.), Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 107: "Algirdas Greimas".
  4. ^ a b Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-07650-9
  5. ^ Marcus, Mitchell, (1984) "Some Inadequate Theories of Human Language Processing." Talking Minds: The Study of Language in Cognitive Science. Eds. Thomas G. Bever, John M. Carroll, and Lance A. Miller. Cambridge MA: MIT P, 1984. 253–277.
  6. ^ "Saussure, considered the most important linguist of the century in Europe until the 1950s, hardly plays a role in current theoretical thinking about language," Koster, Jan. (1996) "Saussure meets the brain", in R. Jonkers, E. Kaan, J. K. Wiegel, eds., Language and Cognition 5. Yearbook 1992 of the Research Group for Linguistic Theory and Knowledge Representation of the University of Groningen, Groningen, pp. 115–120.
  7. ^ Turner, Mark. 1987. Death is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphor, Criticism. University of Chicago Press, p. 6.
  8. ^ Fabb, Nigel. (1988) "Saussure and literary theory: from the perspective of linguistics". Critical Quarterly 30:2 (June 1988), 58–72.
  9. ^ Evans, Dylan. (2005) "From Lacan to Darwin", in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, eds. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005, pp. 38–55.
  10. ^ Gilbert Lazard. "The case for pure linguistics." Studies in Language 36:2 (2012), 241–259. doi 10.1075/sl.36.2.02laz
  11. ^ Matthews, Peter. A Short History of Structural Linguistics, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001.
  12. ^ Tallis, Raymond. Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory, Macmillan Press 1988, 2nd ed. 1995.
  13. ^ Tallis, Raymond. Theorrhoea and After, Macmillan, 1998.

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